Stealing the show from eventual winner Austin Dillon and marking his name in the history books in the process, Bubba Wallace kicked off his first full season in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series with a determined run to second place at the Daytona 500 – the best finish for an African-American in the history of the Great American Race. In an exclusive feature for Mobil 1 The Grid, Lee Spencer sat down with the coveted rookie to get his thoughts on the future, fame and the role his family has played so far on his journey into the top tier of stock car racing.
Darrell “Bubba” Wallace had a reception line of fans and well-wishers waiting for him after the drivers’ meeting at Atlanta Motor Speedway on Sunday.
A persistent rain didn’t stop NASCAR’s newest star from acknowledging young fans and old. As the top finishing African-American driver to race in the Daytona 500 – and the first since 1969 – Wallace has the opportunity to attract fans who have never been reached before.
Wallace took one last selfie before being whisked away on a golf cart to the trailer park where million-dollar motor coaches provide a haven for drivers and team owners. Back at his bus, FOX Sports was set up, waiting for a live hit with Wallace just hours before the Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500. He carefully positioned his bright red bottle of Coke and flipped the switch once again.
As important as it is for Wallace to make Richard Petty Motorsports relevant again, being one of the new, prominent faces of NASCAR could be a turning point for the sport.
“This is definitely helping, for sure,” Wallace said. “I don’t know how long it’s going to take until we get there, but it’s been a fun journey so far, and we’ve only just started the schedule. It will probably take some years, though.”After being under the spotlight nearly 24/7 as Facebook Live followed him through the final four days leading into the Daytona 500 for its “Behind the Wall: Bubba Wallace” series, Atlanta seemed somewhat tame for the driver.
“After a couple of days I’m like looking around. ‘Where are the cameras?’ It was just how much they were around,” Wallace said when he met with the media. “We went to dinner one night, Amanda (Wallace’s girlfriend) and I, and I was like, ‘I’m surprised we’re not mic’d-up right now.'”
Wallace can laugh about the experience now, even if he cried watching Episode 8 – the series finale – over and over again.
But Wallace isn’t afraid to show his emotions. After his second-place finish in the Daytona 500, the waterworks opened when he saw his mother and sister enter the media centre after the race. Everything the family sacrificed financially and personally over the last 15 years to get Wallace to this point hit him at warp speed.
“Just having them there,” Wallace said. “I wish my dad could have been there. I’m a family guy, and it definitely showed there. All the pressure that had built up from the media side, from performing. I try not to put any pressure on myself – I don’t think I did – but all that pressure came crashing down.
“My mom was there, like always, to have that shoulder to cry into. It was just perfect timing.”
At 24, Wallace is handling the demands of the job better than he did when he arrived as a teenager in 2012. Even at 18, he understood the importance for NASCAR to integrate the sport. There had not been an African-American in the Cup ranks since Bill Lester, then 45, made two starts in 2006.
In a four-race audition with Joe Gibbs Racing for Toyota in the Xfinity Series, Wallace won a pole, led 36 laps and posted an average finish of 9.5 with three top-10 results. Yes, the performance was there. The maturation wasn’t.
Ryan Blaney’s friendship with Wallace was forged when the two were 10-year-olds starting out in Bandolero cars. Today, they rely on each other to remain humble in a sport where egos can get the best of drivers.
When Dale Earnhardt Jr. thought the crush of Speedweeks might be weighing on Wallace, he recruited Blaney to intercede. If anyone understands NASCAR’s fishbowl, it’s Earnhardt. He was roughly the same age as Blaney and Wallace when his father died at Daytona in 2001. Earnhardt, who has mentored Blaney, suggested offering Wallace a little guidance in navigating the media hurdles before the biggest race of the year.
“He and I had a little bit of a talk – and not really a ‘talk’ – but just trying to relax him and tell him that he deserves to be here, and don’t let all that other stuff… it’s a good thing that he’s getting recognised in all forms of TV and entertainment and media and doesn’t see it as pressure, (but) sees it as a well-deserved opportunity that he got,” Blaney said.
“But I think he dealt with it really well, and he proved that Sunday when he was able to kind of put all this behind him and just go out there and race. I don’t think he could have handled that a few years ago.
“I think he’s matured a lot over the past two or three years, and, honestly, I feel like him sitting out a little bit last season really matured him a lot and made him appreciate the chances that he gets and the opportunities, and I think that humbled him a lot and made him grow up…
“I think he did a really good job of dealing with everything on the track and off the track, and I’m pretty proud of him for that.”
Blaney understands the demands and pressure his friend has as the newest driver of the No. 43 Richard Petty Motorsports Chevrolet. Blaney faced a similar situation when he was recruited by the Wood Brothers to pilot the vaunted No. 21 Ford. He believes Wallace can have a similar impact.
“I thought it was cool when we were both driving the 21 and 43 last year in a few races,” Blaney said. “I sat back and I told him, I’m like, ‘Man, we’re driving two of the most iconic cars in NASCAR. That’s really, really special that we’ve been able to do that.’
“But I think he can have a huge impact on that race car and that team. I can’t think of any better driver to put in that thing.”
Richard Petty has watched generations of drivers come and go during his eight decades in the paddock. He doesn’t take a shine to everyone, but Wallace has found a place in the King’s heart. It’s a pivotal year for the No. 43 team. The organisation moved its headquarters over the off-season, switched manufacturers and enlisted Wallace’s services.
“We’re starting a new chapter in the Petty book,” said the seven-time champion. “The Cup series is having a rejuvenation of people. Every 10-12 years, the clientele turns over. There’s a bunch of new guys coming in.
“When we started looking around at the new guys coming in, we knew we wanted to get in on the youth movement, and Bubba was our likely course.
“When we got him last year, he just kept improving. He’d get with the crew, get with the crew chief. He’s the kind of driver that can tell you what the car is doing and leaves it up to the crew chief so there’s no argument in what to do. That’s been really, really good, and it’s made it easier on our crew, to work with him because he works with us, too.
“The deal that Bubba brings in is excitement. He talks to everybody and with the crew. He’s doing a heck of a job on the P.R. side for him, but that’s helping us, too. We excite him. He excites us. We had a great week at Daytona, and that’s paying off. The only thing that would have been better is if he had won the race.”
And while Petty appreciates the attention Wallace brings to his family’s race team, his contribution to NASCAR could be immeasurable.
“He could be a guy that turns NASCAR around from the standpoint of being a minority and being young,” Petty said. “At RPM, I cover everybody from 40-up. He covers everybody from zero to 40. We’ve got the whole program. So, no matter what you want to do, no matter what you want to talk about, we transcend it.
“But he doesn’t want to be known as a minority. He wants to be known as a Cup racer/winner. That’s his focus. And that’s our focus – to get him there.”
At the start of a new season, the word “excited” is a mantra in the garage. But there’s something special developing between Wallace and Petty clan. As is the case with any rookie driver – particularly at stock car’s top level – there will be challenges along the way. Wallace, like three-quarters of the field at Atlanta, struggled to stay on the lead lap with winner Kevin Harvick. His issues were exacerbated by Trevor Bayne’s engine exploding on the backstretch and Wallace running into Ricky Stenhouse’s car when blinded by the smoke.
But there’s not another driver in the garage who is fortunate to have a resource with Petty’s resume to lean on.
“He’s definitely taken me under his wing and it’s a different relationship than I’ve ever had with any team owner,” Wallace said. “I think it shows every day. It’s exciting when he walks into the room – and he gets excited when I walk into the room.”As long as we keep having that relationship and keep pressing forward and, as he said Thursday night, ‘We’re going to have the good days and we’re going to have the bad days’. But we’re all going to look forward to it.”
Prior to the Great American Race, Wallace was encouraged by two other famous black athletes – baseball Hall of Famer Hank Aaron and Formula One champion Lewis Hamilton. While changing the culture in NASCAR is important to Wallace, it’s not going to alter his approach to racing.
“I haven’t tried to do anything extra,” Wallace said. “I’m just here to race. I know what I’ve been doing the last 14-15 years, and I’ve always just wanted to win. No history and no extra pressure is going to change that. I’m going to have that until the day I retire – the day I die. When I’m 80-years-old, I’ll still want to be first in whatever I do.”
The hope is that, by then, we won’t be discussing race – only the races Wallace has won.